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Lady Justice gagged, not silenced

Community lawyers, gagged and dressed as “Lady Justice” figures, gathered at Belmore Park on March 29 in the last sitting week of parliament before the budget to protest federal cuts to Community Legal Centres (CLCs), which are facing 30 per cent cuts to their Commonwealth funding.

National Association of Community Legal Centres protest in Sydney on March 29 (Photo: Mark Riboldi)
National Association of Community Legal Centres protest in Sydney on March 29 (Photo: Mark Riboldi)

Speaking at the protest, National Association of CLCs CEO Nassim Arrage said: “We already have to turn away about half of the people who need our help, but if these cuts go through then we’ll be turning away another third.”

The evening before, a motion co-sponsored by Senator Kakoschke-Moore (NXT), Senator Lambie, Senator Hinch, Senator Hanson, and Senator McKim (Greens) – and supported by Labor was passed in the Senate. It calls for the federal government to:

  • Immediately reverse the imminent cuts to CLCs and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services – that take effect from July 1;
  • Commit to adequate and sustainable longer-term funding contributions to the legal assistance sector;
  • Release the 2014 KPMG report on the federal courts; and
  • Review resourcing for the federal courts and identify what resources are required to address unacceptable delays in hearings and determinations.

Law Council of Australia President, Fiona McLeod SC, speaking from Alice Springs where she is meeting with CLCs and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, said the Senate has sent a vital and timely message to the government that cannot be ignored. “This historic motion … is a landmark parliamentary recognition of the funding crisis in our justice sector and the consequences for all Australians.

“CLCs are forced to turn away 160,000 people per year. Many of those people will now carry problems that have grown far worse because they couldn’t obtain legal assistance.

“On legal aid, government funding has fallen from $11.22 per capita annually in 1997 to $7.84 today. Just 8 per cent now qualify for legal aid, despite 14 per cent living under the poverty line. Around 10,000 people per year are compelled to front the courts alone.

“Most urgently, the government should reverse the imminent cuts to CLCs and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services,” Ms McLeod said.

The cuts will amount to $34.83 million between July 1, 2017 and June 30, 2020.

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